I believe in keeping things simple. As soon as I overthink things or it gets too complicated, life has a habit of going a little haywire.
The antidote is always to go back to basics.
Productivity is no different. When things feel out of control or overwhelmed, reviewing key principles and core habits is the best place to start.
And it doesn’t come more simply than how we plan our days.
After all, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Days are the building blocks. Habits we engage in everyday compound. What we do or don’t get done dictates our future. If you’re unsure where your life is going, look at your day to day.
Every day is different and everyone’s days are different but there are underlying ideas to planning your day that are universal.
Know Your Peak Time of Day
Are you an up and at ’em type? Quick to get from waking to fully alert and focused?
Or are you slow in the morning, reaching for coffee and peaking in the mid-afternoon?
Perhaps it’s even later and after dinner or even midnight is when you hit your stride.
It doesn’t matter when your peak is. What matters is that you know when it is and you treasure this golden time.
I’m best early in the morning and if I get into the office early and get a couple of hours of focused, productive time in, I end up achieving double in my day than if this time is swallowed by a meeting or interruptions or starting later. That’s right, double!
Easily the greatest win you can have when it comes to being productive is using your peak for your most important (not urgent) tasks.
Which brings us to my next tip.
Pick Your Top Three Priorities
I know what you’re thinking. There is no way you can limit yourself to three tasks! But I’m not asking you too.
What I’m really asking is this: if these three tasks are all I get done today will I be happy with how my day went?
Maybe this means a task that will make everything else on your list much easier. Maybe it’s something you’ve been procrastinating over and you’ll feel lighter once it’s off your plate. Maybe you’re maintaining momentum on a project by working on it daily. Or maybe you made a commitment to someone you need to make sure you keep.
This short list of potential reasons for urgency or importance highlight why we need to limit ourselves to three items on the to-do list. Everything ends up on the must do pile if we consider all of these possibilities. Evaluating whether something is more important than something else is urgent is a minefield. Much more simple to pick three and get on with getting them done.
Picking three tasks to focus on is setting yourself up for success. Nine days out of ten you will tick everything off and end the day feeling good about yourself. So you want to come back tomorrow and do it all again.
The flipside is leaving your must do pile intact, never reaching the bottom of it every day and ending up in a negative cycle of feeling like you’re never getting anywhere. Not fun.
But what about everything else that never qualifies as a top three but need to be done?
Small Task Master List
Submit expenses. Proofread an email. Follow up that meeting. Update presentation slides. Read an article. Research something.
There are always smaller, more administrative tasks that need doing. No business or life runs on meaty, meaningful work alone.
When it comes to organising your day, I suggest maintaining a master list (that means in one single place) of everything. Then in the gaps or when your top three is complete, slip them in.
There will come a time where a deadline will force it into your top three. Or it will no longer be relevant. This takes care of some items. And you’ll always have a fifteen minutes window between phone calls or half an hour after a meeting to action some of the others.
A bit of a secret of adulthood is I don’t think you ever get to the bottom of your list. There will always be something else to be done. One of the hardest lessons I learnt transitioning into professional life, was letting go of getting it all finished. So focus on the big-ticket items that make a difference and the necessary things required to make the world go around.
Scheduling Your Inbox
Speaking of necessary things that make the world go around. Some may say necessary evil but hey, no judgement here.
Emails have an insidious way of running our days if we let them. I’m sure you’ve heard it before but allocate a time or times that you tackle your inbox.
If you schedule it in, you are reassured that it will be taken care of and will be much less tempted to jump in randomly, derailing your plan.
As an aside, you may want to schedule your entire day but I think with knowing your top three and when you’ll do emails, you have a couple of set blocks to work the rest of your day around. For people that don’t like to be too restricted, this is ideal.
Leave Some Buffer
If you do decide to schedule your days more thoroughly, make sure you leave some buffer.
This means when something comes up or a task takes longer than you think it will (happens to me constantly!), you’ve accounted for that.
Again, it’s about setting yourself up for success and making it extremely likely you’ll achieve what you’ve planned to do. The momentum, and subsequent motivation, that comes from stringing together days and weeks of smashing it ultimately leads to achieving a whole lot more than sporadic days of achieving twenty things followed by weeks of falling short.
Set yourself up to win.
Plan The Day Before
My last tip for day planning is deciding the night before.
There are a couple of advantages of doing your day plan at the end of the previous day.
One, overnight your subconscious will work on the task so you’ll know exactly how to approach it. While you sleep, your brain with find solutions to problems and new ideas to run with.
Two, you know exactly where to start each day to hit the ground running. No procrastination here.
Something as simple as changing when you plan can make a big difference.
Planning Your Work Day
I look around me at the top of their field and they do these things out of habit now. They’re almost not aware of it at all. But it’s these long ingrained habits that have supported their success.
Building these habits right now, wherever you are in your productivity journey, will stand you in good stead for years to come.
When in doubt, go back to basics.